Screen Door on a Submarine

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on October 4, 2015)

Today we continue our journey through the book of James by finishing chapter 2.

It’s a good opportunity to share with each other, to teach each other. Hopefully you’ve been reading James over the last several weeks, and are finding that God is teaching you and showing you valuable things. As you open your bibles, or the ones in front of you, or on your phone, let’s take some time first to read out some of the parts that have been important to you. [ASK]

Thank you! Now, are there any insights you’ve had that you’d like to share? Or any ways you’ve been challenged to put something into practice? [ASK]

James is a letter that’s meant to be put into practice, as we will be reminded again today. As we continue over the next few weeks, our hope is that we can all keep reading, keep trying, and keep sharing with one another!

It’s verses 14-17 of chapter 2 that I’m drawn to today, and in many ways, it’s the central theme of James. 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17, TNIV)

Back in the 80’s, Christian singer Rich Mullins recorded a song that really could be a theme song for these verses. I stole his title for the title of the message today: “Screen Door on a Submarine”.

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You can let that visual sink in for a minute, and realize how ridiculous it is. One of the main lines of the song went: “It’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine. Faith without works…it just ain’t happening!”

Ralph Martin is a bible scholar who put it a little more eloquently: “James…refuses to grant the possibility that faith and deeds can be torn apart and treated as individual entities. For him the only faith worth the name is the faith that is expressed in deeds.”

Back when we first started this series, I talked about how hypocrisy is one of the huge things that turns people away from faith. The example given here in these verses is clearly that: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

A man named Valerian lived in the 5th century, serving as a bishop in France as the Roman Empire was failing. He did not mince words as he looked at this example from James: “Who does not hate this kind of [merely verbal] mercy? In it an idle piety flatters the sick with elegant language. Fruitless tears are offered to heaven…What good does it do to torture your soul with grief over another’s wound if you refuse him a health-giving cup?”

Stay away from merely verbal mercy! Let our faith and our deeds march together hand in hand.

Scholar James Adamson looked carefully at the language used through these verses. In English, we use primarily three tenses: past, present and future. Greek regularly used many others, and without needing to go into a language lesson, I can read you his conclusion after seeing the very precise tenses used all through this section. Adamson writes: “This failure of Christian love [which James describes] was not accidental, but sustained and deliberate.”

That’s helpful to me. James is not primarily challenging the missed opportunities we have here and there to help out. He’s addressing the sustained practice of not taking action when it is in our power to meet the needs around us. This isn’t primarily about the needs that we don’t have the ability to meet. Rather, Adamson writes, “Apparently this ‘Christian’ seems to be well able to provide relief…ability is not in question, only…faith.”

When I read this, new things started popping in my head.

Actions and faith ARE closely related; they influence and impact each other. Our faith that believes God takes care of the poor and the widows and the orphans can lead us to be a provision of that care by giving ourselves. And vice-versa, our lack of giving to those in need, our lack of taking action to help, can come from or even cause a lack of faith that God has enough to take care of US if we give something up to help another.

This is not just a challenge that will help the poor; this is a warning for us who have resources, that refusing to use what we have for the good of others can damage our faith, damage our trust in God’s care for us. To be blunt, when our first priority is making sure we keep enough resources for ourselves, we are not only failing to help those in need around us…we run the risk of damaging our own ability to have faith in God’s provision for us…because we think we’re taking care of ourselves.

The easiest and most clear interpretation of these verses is to put our faith into action by meeting the needs of the poor and hungry when we have the means to do so.

Fortunately, we live in a Newberg community where churches come together in many ways to make this possible. For 45 years, Newberg FISH–it stands for Friends in Service to Humanity–has tried to meet needs in our Newberg area through volunteers, primarily through providing food boxes to those in need. Last year, they distributed almost 350,000 pounds of food!

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Our church has been involved with FISH from the beginning, as a tangible way to have our deeds go hand in hand with our faith. Many people have volunteered over the years, but one of the longest faithful volunteers has been Charles Hanson, who also faithfully hands out worship sheets over here every Sunday in first service. He’s been a volunteer at FISH for 24 years!

You can volunteer in many ways at their food pantry, and you can also give financially to FISH to allow them to purchase food to be distributed to those who qualify for aid. You can sign up at Fred Meyer or Amazon, and have money donated to FISH with every purchase you make.

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In addition to being a regular volunteer with FISH, between now and Oct. 18 we have a time-limited way to be involved, through what’s called “Feed The Need”. For years, 2nd Street Community Church led the way with Feed the Need, and we often had people from our church help go door to door to collect canned food. This year, Feed the Need is taking a different approach. Rather than use our time to go door to door, we are going to take action and be the ones to donate ourselves. These are the food items most needed and therefore what we are limiting it to. This list is back at the Welcome Center, and will be in Friday’s newsletter, Your NFC. For the next two Sundays, you can bring food here to the church in the library…and rumor has it we’ll try to fill the airporter out on the lawn on the 18th.

In other words…we’ve got an opportunity right in front of our noses to put James 2 into practice over the next two weeks. We can act to provide food for people in our community who need it. I hope we’ll rise to the occasion!

Elizabeth also mentioned at the beginning of the service the opportunity to serve at Edwards Elementary one Friday a month. And of course, beyond the programmatic ways to give, we can each ask God to open our eyes to the people in our circles who have physical needs God would like us to meet. I love the many ways over the years that I’ve been witness to how many of you do just that. I’ve seen many of you with a faith that is alive, not dead with inaction. This is a call for all of us to take that to heart.

Those are some of the direct and clear ways to apply these verses, but of course God can also take us deeper.

In the broader context of James, we can remember that having deeds match our faith means more than just giving food and clothing. Steve last week reminded us that true faith does not act with favoritism, giving preferential treatment to the rich and powerful. Deeds match faith when we treat all people with mercy and with love, looking for ways to honor the humanity of those in the poor, oppressed, and least privileged positions.

Many are putting feet to their faith by working for racial equality and justice. I love how our youth groups have been more intentional over the last several years about inviting and building relationships with youth from the Latino congregation. Not as “ministry” or “outreach”…just as people, just to be in youth group together.

Some are working to make abortion more rare by adopting, and by walking alongside pregnant teens. It’s well worth taking the time to ask God a question similar to the one printed on your worship sheet today: How, God, are you asking me to put my faith into action with the people I see week after week?

I really do believe that in many ways, like these verses assume, we have resources of time, money and talent that we can offer to others as an expression of our faith. We’re called to do it, and we can find great joy in becoming generous and giving like God is.

I really do believe that to be true, yet I want to finish today on a little different note.

What about the times where we really don’t have what is needed to meet the needs of the world?

I’m thinking about the shootings this week in our own state, about the grief of so many from the loss of life and the loss of safety once again. It’s a symptom of such a wide epidemic of gun violence in our society, and it seems overwhelming to tackle this huge social issue.

I’m thinking about refugees around the world. Syrian refugees are the ones we are seeing most now in the news, but of course refugees are on every continent.

And I’m also thinking of more personal examples: a family I’ve tried to show love and care to, but who still feels rejected; a victim of abuse who doesn’t know how to deal with the knowledge of the recent lawsuit case; a gay man who feels the sting of rejection and responds with anger and hurt over our recent discussions as a church; someone in our church going through a second time of unemployment after working so hard to turn his life around, and how the many calls and ways I’ve tried to help have failed. These and so many more are examples where I feel like I don’t have what it takes to meet their needs.

These past few weeks have been vivid reminders of the great needs in our community, and my utter inability do things to meet them. I want to live out my faith…I’ve been trying to live out my faith…but some things are just too big. It can get wearing and wearying in these times when I don’t feel I have anything left to give.

Sometimes hope comes when I get a reminder that God’s resources in us are greater than I often remember.

Rachelle Staley tweeted a week ago that if every church in America took in one Syrian refugee family, we could give homes to about a million refugees. A million doesn’t seem doable, but one family for our whole church looks possible, doesn’t it?

Then this week at team meeting, Elizabeth Sherwood talked about how God was working on her. She was thanking God for the ways our Friends Center building across the street now has virtually every room being used. We have some new rentals, and our middle school youth have outgrown the Youth House and are now in the remodeled Friends Center. God has been good!

Our own Loren VanTassel has been instrumental in turning the former Youth House into an international house, a hub for ministry to several international students at George Fox. Elizabeth was thanking God for all of that, and then looking at the law office next to the Friends Center building that is for sale, and wondering…what if our church came together and bought the house, what if our church came together to support a refugee family living right there? Right across the street from this new hub for international ministry?

Experiences like that remind me that it’s God who gives vision and provision. It’s God who takes world-size problems and whittles them into bite-sized pieces. It’s God who gives us each other to tackle things we cannot do as individuals.

As you listen to God this week for how you are to give action to your faith, perhaps God has something for our church to do together.

Big or little, every action we do out of faith and from God’s leading is valuable and important! May we listen for how God wants us to be doers, not just believers. And if there are things God is putting on your mind and heart that won’t let you go…share them with us!

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